The release of papers about the rank and file – and the women – of the 1916 Easter Rising should prompt greater depth and detail in the writing of history you might have thought had been well turned over already. But you’d be wrong. The eminent historian Diarmaid Ferriter explains the crucial role of the Bureau of Military History, the archive of accounts of veterans recorded mainly in the 1940s and 50s well after the main events. The bureau began document release only a decade ago out of respect for the sensitivities of survivors and families and fears of the contemporary political implications of picking at old sores. The period covered is barely a decade long. The period from the events, through recording the stories and finally publishing them stretches over almost a century.
Will the full history of the Troubles fare any better or even as well? The period of time covered is far longer than from 1913 through to the war of independence and civil war and the politics is far more precarious than the 1950s Republic. The difference perhaps is that today we live in a different age of multimedia, investigative inquiry and freedom of information – assuming of course the local politicians give their gracious permission post-post-post Haass. Apart from the timescale the Bureau would be a good model for our own exercise by Arkiv and others, if they ever get off the ground in anyone’s lifetime.
From Diairmaid Ferriter in the Irish Times
In 2003, there was much interest in the opening up of the archive of the Bureau of Military History (BMH), which included over 1,700 statements taken from Irish War of Independence veterans in the 1940s and 1950s. Their accounts of the role they played in the war were locked up in Government Buildings in 1958, with no agreement as to when they might be opened, but with a consensus that it would not be for at least another generation.
That was hardly surprising; many of the events and legacies of the revolutionary era were still raw and divisive in the mid-20th century, and there was legitimate concern about allegations and accusations that might be contained in the statements with no right of redress.
“If every Seán and Séamus from Ballythis and Ballythat, who took major or minor or no part at all in the national movement from 1916 to 1921, has free access to the material it may result in local civil warfare in every second town and village in the country.”
The MSPC is an archive that is monumental in its detail and scope, and it is likely to transform research into, and understanding of, Irish republican military endeavour from 1916 to 1923 as well as the political, social and cultural forces underpinning it.
It has involved an awesome effort on the part of a small number of archivists based in the Cathal Brugha Barracks in Dublin, who have had to tackle the processing, cataloguing and digitisation of a collection that amounts to nearly 300,000 files, which will be released in phases over the next few years
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London